The Jigsaw Puzzle

Learning a language (or any other skill) is task that requires you to understand how pieces fit together.

Take a jigsaw puzzle, for example. You see the final product on the box cover (that is to say, what the completed puzzle will look like) and then choose to pick a puzzle based on which picture you like (I also know that there are three-dimensional puzzles as well so I won’t come to exclude those.)

You take it home, you open the box and all of the pieces come out.

That confusion is relatable in language learning.

I’ve experienced it many times. So much confusion in coming to grips with a new language (although obviously if it is closely related to one you already know, you already have a significant amount of the puzzle done for you).

I remember feeling similarly overwhelmed with a number of “frontier” languages that weren’t similar to those that I already knew. Hungarian felt like this (and I’m still studying it during my commutes), as did Greenlandic, Burmese, Finnish, Hebrew and Yiddish during the early stages. Even some languages that were closer to my native tongue—like Danish, Tok Pisin and Krio—also qualified.

In Hungarian, I was confused with how to use the cases (and I still haven’t mastered all of them despite the fact that they function very closely to the Finnish ones) as well as when to use “nem” and when to use “nincs” (the first is more like “not” with verbs and the second is more like “there isn’t”).

Burmese had me perplexed as it was a language in which a lot of sentences left out the pronoun. To say “we have it”, you would just say “is + present tense marker”. A lot of aspects that were not touched upon too readily in my previous language-learning projects came to the fore with Burmese (like classifier words or using different pronouns for yourself in various situations).

I could give more examples, but let’s delve into what this jigsaw puzzle means for you…

For one, especially in a two-dimensional puzzle, you want to separate the edge pieces first. In so doing, you will have the basis to fill in the rest of the puzzle.

The edge pieces in language learning are having mastered:

  • Pronouns (for some languages like Japanese with a lot of pronouns I would recommend focusing on the ones you are most likely to use or hear used given your environment)
  • Being able to conjugate verbs so that you can express the past, the present and the future in a significant capacity without struggling.
  • Being able to say things like “thank you”, “where are you from?” “do you speak (name of language)?” and basic question words, not also to mention speak about yourself in a small capacity.
  • Asking for directions
  • Being able to use adjectives and adverbs
  • Prepositions
  • A case system (if there is one. In the case [no pun intended] of the Finno-Ugric languages, the case system overlaps with prepositions).
  • Sentence structure (does the verb go first like in Irish? Or at the end like in Japanese and Turkish? Can I put sentences together with the same sentence structure found in my native language or in the other languages I know? If not, what’s different?
  • Articles and noun gender patterns (if any. Entire language families lack articles entirely, such as the Finno-Ugric Languages)
  • Conjunctions (although there are some languages like Rapa Nui that, according to wikitionary, “supplant the need for conjunctions”)

Your goal is to master all of these ten elements, and in so doing you will have assembled the edge of your dream puzzle. Some of these are going to be harder than others, depending on what your dream language is (and yes, sometimes entire items on that list will be lacking altogether. Bislama and Spanish have no case systems, but Finnish has no articles or noun-gender patterns).

Now what exactly do you do when you’re done with the puzzle?

You fill in the rest, but unlike the jigsaw puzzle in real life, the language-learning process never ends. Even for your native language, you’ll always be learning new words and new expressions. I’ve been speaking Yiddish for nearly a decade now, and nearly seven-eight years as a fluent speaker, and I’m always discovering new expressions, new words and new surprises. The same is even true with English, even if I count American English by itself! (And after having studied Trinidadian Creole and Krio, I’ve realized the true extent to which African-American culture has developed this unique language and made it distinct, expressive and admired the world over! And my journeys with Irish and Yiddish and German have also made me realize how many other immigrant groups made their mark on it as well! )

The portions you fill in next will be those that you deem the most important to apply in your life. You’ll notice exactly what you’re missing from your time spent with the language, whether it be with native speakers or using the language online or with your books (whether they are books for learners or books for native-speakers).

And perhaps the most important thing about the jigsaw puzzle is that it will involve rearranging the pieces and finding out how they fit together. You’ll look at the huge collection of pieces and think, “well this one goes over there, and I think it fits with that one? No? Well maybe I’ll need to try something else…all of these eight pieces go together! Great job!”

You may indeed be able to memorize words very quickly, but understanding how they fit together is another thing that may take time. If I were learning a language like Slovak (which I’m sort of letting sleep at the moment), given its similarities to Polish (for which I have already assembled the edge of the puzzle), I wouldn’t need to really “assemble” the edge again. But for Palauan I had absolutely no prior advantages, and I had to assemble the whole thing from scratch. Fun times.

Here’s hoping to you finding all of the edge pieces and putting them together! Happy puzzling!

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Yah, I know, it ain’t no jigsaw puzzle, but it’s all I got! 

My Weaknesses

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Here’s something you probably weren’t expecting me to write about, and I highly recommend all bloggers who give advice of any sort do very much the same.

Here I am, someone who writes instructions for people wanting to use their languages to talk to other people, to get to know other cultures, or who came here finding a perspective on how to learn rarer languages or those spoken in places in which English proficiency or fluency is the norm.

But I’d like to let you in on something: I don’t even see myself as any variety of authority on most days. Regardless of how much external validation or how many interviews I get or even if I speak ten different languages in a single evening without faltering in any of them (it has happened!), I still see myself as very much a flawed creature.

I just hope that my musings could provide an antidote to the discouragement we encounter all far too often.

My biggest weaknesses, and what I can do about them:

 

  1. I burn out easily.

 

This wasn’t the case back when I was in school, but I think the novelty of polyglottery has a bit worn off and for a few months now I’ve been hard-pressed to do any variety of language learning that isn’t directly connected to the Internet or an mp3 file.

I’m moving out of my apartment right now and as I write this I have on my left side a pile of no less than eighteen language learning books, and while some of them I have looked at cover to cover, I have an expectation that I should have memorized the contents of at least one, and I have done no such thing, despite the fact that a handful of the books are very worn out from overuse.

On top of game design and writing this blog I feel that my energy has been beaten down through cynicism, and somehow I need to get it back.

 

A possible fix: Maybe I should take a break from almost all rote-language learning for a while (excluding the maintenance with entertainment that I would usually use to take break, after all, watching “Let’s Play” YouTube videos in Finnish hardly counts as work in my book.)

Barring that, maybe I should wait a while and then perhaps a change in my life would cause me to return to these projects with new vigor.

I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution to learn Welsh and I feel that I haven’t been making ample progress. On top of that, I have a travel destination in May 2017 (most likely) and an accompanying language mission that I cannot afford to “screw up”.

More on that for another time!

 

  1. I’m hypercompetitive

 

…but not in the way you might think!

 

I’m hypercompetitive with the ideal version of myself that I’d like to become. So when I make a mistake somehow or can’t switch languages fast enough (this is one thing that has been tripping me up as of late!), I blame myself.

If I feel as though I’ve been floundering in maintaining certain languages, I get uneasy even if I’ve had a lot to do otherwise and most other people would forgive themselves!

In short, I expect myself to be superhuman, but I can’t have it any other way. I’ve tried.

What’s more, I also have external competition, perhaps worrying that many other polyglots that have focused on more popular languages see me as something “less” because I would commit more time to something like Irish or Bislama than to French or Spanish.

 

A possible fix: take a note of my weak feelings and note to which languages I’ve had these troubles with. Use mini-exercises , nothing to stressful, to make myself feel good about using these languages again. Realize that mistakes are actually okay—after all I catch myself making grammatical errors or using the wrong prepositions in English more frequently than I used to!

 

  1. I get nervous easily.

 

There was that one time that I was asked to speak Icelandic to a guest at an event and I was so tripped up for a number of reasons that I could barely get coherent sentences out.

Then there are the times in which, if I have had something with sugar in it, even a little bit, my memory banks will be positively scrambled. It’s bad when you have to show up to an event having rehearsed Spanish the whole day and forgot the word for “download” accidentally (descargar, for those curious).

I should know that word, I think to myself, given how much time I use with video games to practice Spanish (which I am only moderately proud of and don’t consider myself good at most of the time, this statement applies both to video games and to Spanish).

I figure “more practice”, head home, watch six videos in Spanish and write out words I don’t know and develop techniques for memorizing them, and it occurs to me that vocabulary really isn’t the problem, the actual problem is self-doubt.

 

A possible fix: However grateful I am for my schooling, I have to recognize that, sadly, one of its purposes was (and remains) to suck out a lot of our confidences. Realize that the problem isn’t a lack of practice or a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of mindfulness. I should focus on this sort of mental discipline as much as sheer rote-learning when preparing for language exchange events.

 

  1. I dwell on past failures for far too long, even though I know I shouldn’t

 

Some of you know this about me, but concerning events especially I have a photographic memory.

Sadly, one thing this has done is that I remember almost every time a native speaker has put me down / answered me in English / I’ve been tongue tied or unable to form a sentence / something bad was said or written about me / I couldn’t think of the right word / I didn’t live up to my standards.

I even took a year-long break from Spanish because of thoughts like these.

 

A possible fix: realize that a lot of the being answered in English bits were due to (1) insecurity on behalf of the native speaker (2) a contract (in which they may be required to speak your native language) (3) in which the native speaker has too much of his or her native language in the home or at work and wants a change (I’m okay using other languages if necessary) (4) habit (look, if you met the person before you could manage their language well enough, be easy on yourself! They may be used to communicating with you in the language you met them in)

For the other concerns, see the possible fix in (3), above.

 

  1. I often put more stock in other people’s opinions of me, my progress and my work than my own opinions thereof.

 

This, again, has to do with schooling and grades.

There is one good thing to this, though: if I get validated or complimented or being told I speak “fluent” or “wonderful” (insert language here), I feel an extraordinary confidence rush. Thankfully this has been happening more and more.

A possible fix: I’ve been used to discounting my own opinions as invalid (also perhaps something to do with my schooling), now I just have to do this to my own negative opinions. This has to be called a “one-sided optimistic bulldozer”.

Truly a worthy investment on your part, too.